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Ryan: Wild cards, computer games and other championship leftovers

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It was Year 5 for the Championship 4, a fitting milepost for analysis and evaluation of NASCAR’s playoffs.

The timing also is right judging by the reaction to this year’s champion, who undoubtedly has spurred the most debate of the elimination era despite having impeccable credentials.

Joey Logano might be the worthiest of any champion yet under this system – scoring the most points, accumulating the most top 10s and notching the best average finish of this year’s playoffs. So why has his title received blowback (we’ll get to our theory below)?

And there’s another reason that a big-picture playoff reflection seems ripe.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, this has been the longest period of stasis in NASCAR’s quasi-postseason for crowning a champion. Though the addition of stages and playoff points slightly altered the means for advancement, the method for qualifying and the size of the field has been constant since 2014.

That follows a period of significant structural changes at least every three to four years in the first decade of what once was known as “the Chase.”

In 2007, the field was expanded to 12 (and bonus points were added). In 2011, two slots were reserved for wild cards based on the winningest drivers outside the top 10. And in 2014, the system was overhauled with three-race elimination rounds and a 16-driver field.

Some would argue more changes (fewer races? fewer contenders?) still are needed – and perhaps the highly anticipated 2020 schedule makeover will reflect a new sheen.

But in the meantime, here are some lingering thoughts from the 2018 championship finale a week later:

Something wild: Congratulations, NASCAR: You crowned your first wild-card champion.

That’s what feels different about Logano’s title. (The notion that there is pushback simply because Logano’s aggression is polarizing seems reductive … was Kyle Busch’s 2015 title greeted the same way?)

The Team Penske driver was justified in resisting the underdog label that was thrust upon his team in the run-up to his matchup with “The Big Three,” and Logano even had jokes about racing against the dominant regular-season trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (which he conceded was far ahead of his team three months earlier).

The No. 22 Ford should have been given more credence as a contender entering Homestead-Miami Speedway because it essentially played the role of a 10-6 team getting hot during a Super Bowl run (six wild-card teams have won the NFL championship).

In five years of eliminations, Logano is the champion with the most nondescript regular season. As the slowest of the four contenders in the 2016 finale, Jimmie Johnson might have been a bigger underdog who won the finale and title, but he at least had four other victories on the way to his seventh championship.

Logano’s title felt more like an eighth seed knocking out a 13-3 team (or three). That’s much harder to reconcile in NASCAR, though, because the teams having epic seasons aren’t truly eliminated.

When an upset of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers occurs in the divisional round, they’re forgotten in the next two rounds. There is no omnipresent reminder that “Oh, the guy winning the championship wasn’t nearly as good as those other guys during the first 26 races.”

Logano emerged the rightful winner of an epic battle royale among the four best drivers of 2018, but it also was hard to ignore that two Hall of Fame drivers (Busch and Harvick) enjoyed career seasons.

That’s problematic, and it might be impossible for NASCAR to address beyond just educating fans on adjusting to it. By adding stages and playoff points, NASCAR ensured there virtually will never be an undeserving winless champion (which Ryan Newman flirted with becoming in 2014).

But some fundamentals likely can’t be “fixed” through tweaks – aside from “true” eliminations (i.e., removing cars ineligible for the title from the field of play) that would seem a non-starter.

–Four-way focus: Maybe that’s something to consider, though, considering how compelling the annual finale has become with only four cars that really matter.

The conventional wisdom goes it’s unfair to focus only on the championship contenders while ignoring the field. But there increasingly is no reason to focus on the rest, who have admitted to essentially racing the Championship 4 with mittens.

It’s clear the contenders and their teams prefer it that way – multicar teams quite obviously (and rationally) put a higher priority on whichever of their cars reach the finals.

Maybe it’s to the detriment for the other 30-something cars, but recent finales have shown it’s hugely compelling to follow only four cars’ strategies (stall selection! Short pitting! Short run vs. long run!). There’s virtually no compunction about voluntarily dismissing anyone else’s chances of winning.

The microtargeting is partly what makes this championship structure so good, allowing such dissection and analysis of what each of the four contenders is doing in execution and strategy.

Dual disappointments: In that vein, it was stupefying to contemplate how co-favorites Busch and Harvick caught every break and made all the necessary moves but still couldn’t capitalize.

Busch benefited from controversially having the No. 1 pit stall. It helped ensure he kept the lead when he got the yellow he needed late in the race (after crew chief Adam Stevens played the only card he could to keep his driver in the game). But his No. 18 Toyota simply wasn’t fast enough on the restart, plummeting from first to fourth.

It was indicative of the final 10 races for Busch, who won at Richmond and Phoenix but struggled mightily for race-winning speed at the four 1.5-mile ovals.

That was shocking because Joe Gibbs Racing (like any championship contender) brought “next-generation” chassis for the playoffs that somehow weren’t on par with the Fords of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. At least in the finale, Gibbs’ Toyotas also weren’t the equal of Truex’s (Furniture Row Racing and JGR assuredly weren’t working as closely in the final races of their alliance).

Harvick had the third-fastest car at Miami, but he still had a chance to win on a brilliant strategy call by substitute crew chief Tony Gibson, who short-pitted a lap earlier than the other three. Though crew chief Rodney Childers certainly was missed, strategy is the weakest part of his game, so Harvick might have benefited tactically from having a better shot to win with Gibson on the box. But ultimately, the final caution ensured it didn’t matter – even if the yellow hadn’t flown, Truex still would have beat Harvick under green.

The bottom line is that barring any major mistakes or problems by Logano and Truex, there was no way Busch and Harvick – the co-dominant drivers of 2018 — could win the championship, even if the race went exactly their way in the closing stages.

It was a stunning development given how the regular season unfolded. But maybe less stunning given how the playoffs did.

Computer age: Harvick’s performance was another emphatic confirmation of the so-called “arms race” that has engulfed the Cup Series, for better or worse. His No. 4 Ford seemed well off Friday and Saturday, but a marathon simulation session by Childers and engineer Dax Gerringer impressively restored Harvick to fighting shape for Sunday (and fastest before night fell).

That’s good in a way because it underscores that the investment of effort, money and time pays off.

But do you want races won essentially as much on high-fidelity software as on the racetrack?

That’s one of the dilemmas for modern-day NASCAR.

Money talks: One of the more awkward moments during the race championship weekend came during the news conference involving the contending owners (and their top lieutenants). When asked about the sponsor trends in NASCAR, Penske Corp. vice chairman Walt Czarnecki cited a well-attended sponsor conference the team was holding while racing for the championship.

“So there’s an appetite out there as long as you’re delivering the value,” Czarnecki said.

It was jarring because Czarnecki was sitting beside Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone, who disclosed a few minutes later that a third of his team’s 62 employees still hadn’t found work beyond the team’s impending shutdown. Because of a lack of sponsorship (despite its 2017 championship), the Denver-based team and Truex finished second (to Penske and Logano) in their final race a day later.

The dichotomy between the top two teams in the 2018 standings reveals some inconvenient truths in Cup. Success undoubtedly helps drive sponsor interest, but it’s no guarantee of the necessary cash flow to fund the exorbitant annual budgets that stretch well into the tens of millions.

The ShellPennzoil sponsorship of Team Penske’s championship team is predicated on a strong business-to-business relationship because of Roger Penske’s automotive empire (which guarantees revenue to its backer). It would appear that Hendrick Motorsports’ new deal with Ally to sponsor Jimmie Johnson has similar characteristics.

It’s a business structure that is disconcertingly sui generis to some degree – every car owner in NASCAR generally has amassed some type of fortune, but only a select few happen to have the independent businesses that can attract sponsorship motivated more by revenue than results.

For the owner of a mattress and furniture store chain, facing off against rivals with broader and more lucrative portfolios might be a taller order than beating their race cars.

Let’s have some fun: A postscript on the most memorable thing Jimmie Johnson did this season (aside from the last lap of the Roval). His trip to the Formula One season finale invigorated the seven-time champion, whose giddiness over an impending car swap with Fernando Alonso was palpable via social media.

Yes, some of Johnson’s unbridled happiness naturally stems from being free of the stressors that suck the joy from competing at NASCAR’s highest level. (He also is free from his toughest season in Cup.)

But it also seemed to stem from being around a different environment. Witness the postrace interviews Sunday in Abu Dhabi with F1 drivers who didn’t seem ready for the season to end. Again, their championship system isn’t as inherently pressurized as NASCAR’s (and thus produces a different range of emotions), but they also are traveling thousands of miles annually and don’t seem as worse for the wear.

It recalled a salient question during NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ state of NASCAR news conference from veteran racing journalist Jeff Gluck, who has spent some of the past two years taking his eponymous website’s coverage to other series.

Gluck discovered that drivers and riders outside stock cars seemed to be having more fun and showing more passion, prompting a trenchant observation: Is NASCAR doing enough to ensure its stars are displaying as much of that infectious happiness and passion?

Phelps replied that Gluck’s question was a generalization (which is a fair response), but as a 2020 schedule overhaul is contemplated, let’s hope that Johnson’s exuberance is remembered.

Kevin Harvick expects more suspensions for Rodney Childers; unrepentant about penalty

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A postrace penalty after his victory at Texas Motor Speedway cost Kevin Harvick his crew chief for the final two races of the 2018 season.

But the punishment won’t be a deterrent: Harvick fully expects he will be thrust into a situation without Rodney Childers again.

“It better not be the last time that he gets suspended because I just don’t think you are pushing it hard enough if you’re not,” Harvick said Tuesday night during his “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel. “That’s part of racing. Not something I’m going to apologize for at any point in my career just because of the fact I want my crew chief doing what he has to do to make my car go as fast as he can. Try to work within the rules and find the gray area you can and win some and lose some.”

Childers was benched for mounting an illegal spoiler on the No. 4 Ford at Texas, which was the eighth and final win of a career season for Harvick. The infraction was discovered during a midweek inspection at the R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, and NASCAR stripped the championship benefits of the win.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver dominated NASCAR’s Loop Data statistics, finishing first in driver rating, fastest laps, fastest on restarts, laps led and green-flag speed.

Harvick also ranked first with 1,990 laps led — the third time in five seasons with Childers that he has topped that category.

During a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Childers said the team’s speed had led to many trips to the R&D Center for extra scrutiny in 2014-15.

Childers lamented the team choosing to back off in practice and qualifying in 2016 to avoid NASCAR attention.

But on Tuesday’s show, Harvick said the attention — and sometimes resulting penalties — were a good thing.

“It’s not going to be the last time my crew chief gets suspended,” Harvick said. “That’s just part of what we do, and if you’re going to be one of the good teams, you’re going to have to push the limits. You’re going to have to be on the verge of getting in trouble all the time.

“You have to push the envelope.”

Martin Truex Jr. on the end: ‘It sucks. It hurts. It’s terrible. I hate it’

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There were no tears shed as Martin Truex Jr. climbed from his No. 78 Toyota after the final ride of Furniture Row Racing.

About a half-dozen team members in orange and black firesuits stood wearily nearby with mostly sullen faces and exchanged some handshakes, hugs and shoulder pats. Crew chief Cole Pearn clapped Truex on the left shoulder and had a measured conversation with his driver about everything that transpired over the past three hours. Team owner Barney Visser wasn’t at the car but was described by Pearn as “just his normal solemn self; not much emotion.”

But the feelings still were raw for the team that nearly left NASCAR on top.

“It sucks,” said Truex, whose voice did quaver a few times in a NBC interview after finishing second Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his bid for consecutive championships in the last start for his Denver-based team. “Yeah, it sucks.

“It sucks. It hurts. It’s terrible. I hate it. I wish we could go on and race 10 more years together, but we can’t.”

After a late-night flight to the Rocky Mountains, life would begin anew for the 62 members of Furniture Row Racing (and perhaps with harsh realities for at least a third of the team). There are cars and equipment to be liquidated, houses to be sold and families to be moved (which is why so many tears were shed last week after its hauler was packed a final time and dispatched to the season finale).

The little team that could from Colorado then will disperse to all corners of the country with many of its plucky employees probably still wondering what could have been if not for a fateful late caution in South Florida.

“No question, we had the car to beat, but if you don’t lead the last lap, it doesn’t matter what you got,” said Truex, who actually led only 20 laps (the fewest of the four championship contenders) but whose car clearly was strongest over full green-flag runs of 30 laps or more. “We fought hard. We played the right strategy. We kept getting it better and better and on the long runs, that thing was nasty. We’d kill them. That was cool. But it didn’t come down to that tonight.”

Like it does so often at the 1.5-mile oval with massive tire wear, the Ford Ecoboost 400 came down to a late caution flag. Until the yellow flew with 20 laps remaining for contact involving the No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski (Logano’s teammate) and Daniel Suarez’s No. 19 Toyota (the car that Truex and Pearn will helm next season along with a few select FRR crew members), it seemed the race would be decided between Kevin Harvick and Truex,

With fourth title contender Kyle Busch in first (and hoping for a caution) on much older tires and needing to stop again, the lead was cycling toward Harvick and Truex, who seemed in the catbird seat for his fifth victory of the season.

“I thought we were slaying (Harvick) pretty hard and would have got him pretty quick, and there was no way what (Busch’s team) was doing was going to work out,” Pearn said.

Until the final caution.

After pit stops, Busch emerged in first ahead of Truex, Logano and Harvick. Truex quickly dusted Busch on the Lap 253 restart, but Logano swept past him four laps later with Truex barely able to put up a fight.

“He was so much faster than me at that point, if I would have hit him, he would have just hit me back and went on,” Truex said when asked if he could have been more aggressive “It was a moot point. I needed to be faster. It wasn’t even close at that point in the race. He passed me so fast, I didn’t even have a chance to do anything. So, yeah.”

Logano led a race-high 80 laps primarily because he was unbeatable during the first 15 to 20 laps after a restart. Sunday’s last restart was with 15 to go.

“Just needed more time,” Truex said.

And more than a little luck, as it turned out. Sunday’s race was the inverse of Truex’s path to the 2017 championship, which he won with a better short-run car than Busch … because of a late yellow flag that was triggered because of debris from a flat tire on Suarez’s No. 19.

“(Suarez) brought the caution out last year which won us the championship,” Pearn said. “This year it cost us the championship. You’ve got to be good, but you’ve got to have a bit of luck. At the end of the day, it just didn’t quite shake out.”

Was there extra sting from losing to Logano, whom Truex vowed wouldn’t win the championship after the Team Penske driver advanced to the Championship 4 by bumping him aside for a last-lap win Oct. 28 at Martinsville Speedway?

“Yeah, a little bit, but what are you going to do? They did a good job,” Truex said. “They beat us. Fair and square. It’s the way it goes. That’s racing. That’s why we race.”

Pearn, who got into a shouting match post-Martinsville with Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, also shrugged it off.

“I don’t think that matters to me,” Pearn said. “(Logano’s team) did a great job. They haven’t quite had the speed they displayed (Sunday) all year. Credit to them. They went out and earned it. So they did a great job.”

So did Furniture Row Racing, which managed to soldier through the playoffs under the specter of the impending shutdown that was announced the week of the regular-season finale. Though Truex was winless over the final 10 races, he still managed five top-five finishes and came up just one position short of becoming the 16th driver with multiple championships (and first in eight years to win consecutive titles).

“I don’t know what else we could’ve done,” Truex said. “Honestly, we worked our guts out all weekend and just to get here. We shut a lot of people up and made them eat crow, and that felt good. To come here and almost upset the field and almost win it back to back was really awesome. I just wish that last caution hadn’t come out. Other than that, I don’t know what we could’ve done.”

Said Pearn: “I’m just super proud of our effort. Everybody and their brother wanted to write us off and say we couldn’t do it. And we just proved them all the hell wrong like we have all along. If that’s the way the 78’s got to go out on a style and performance like that, I’m good with it.”

It was a fitting end to a five-season run for Truex with the underdog team that he once described as a “bunch of misfits” that became one of stock-car racing’s most unlikely success stories while resurrecting a driver’s career.

“Best time of my life,” Truex said. “I don’t know what else to say. Those guys have been amazing. They’ve made me a superstar in NASCAR. I’m just very thankful for them all.”

Denny Hamlin reacts to giving up the No. 1 pit stall to Kyle Busch

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In an unusual development, the pole-sitter for Sunday’s Ford 400 championship finale will start first in the race but won’t be stopping the last stall in the pits at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

How did Denny Hamlin feel about handing over the best spot for pit stops to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who will race for a title Sunday?

In an interview with the Associated Press and NBC Sports after the final practice Saturday, Hamlin (who is starting on the pole at the track for the second consecutive season) discussed his reaction to team owner Joe Gibbs’ decision to cede the No. 1 stall to Busch (who qualified second), the precedent it might set, how sponsor FedEx reacted and how racing is complicated Sunday for those outside the Championship 4.

Q: You said last night that you would prefer to keep the stall, can you explain how this decision was reached?

Hamlin: “Ultimately, it’s an upper management decision, and that’s part of it. I understand. Sat down with Joe quite a bit. He came over pretty fast to talk to me. I could see the other side of it. If the roles were reversed, I think we would hope for the same thing. I think that’s the thing that sucks about it. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, but we would expect the same thing back.

“The problem is from my standpoint is it probably will set a precedent going forward. It probably will be a manufacturer thing more so than a teammate. I hate it, too, because I denied Martin last year. Luckily he won the race anyway, but I just think it’s a tough deal, and you’ve got to listen to the boss. And I understand, too, that there’s 400 employees back at the shop saying you got to do it. We’re narrow-minded because we’ve got 20 guys here working on our car, but there’s also 400 or 500 at the shop who are like you’ve got to do what’s best for all of us. I get that part of it. Ultimately, I sat behind Kyle at Martinsville for just way too long at the end of the race thinking I shouldn’t pass him, and I lost the race by a 10th (of a second) and shouldn’t have done that. I look back, I gave away a Richmond race. A bunch of stuff I just gave away trying to help.

“Hopefully, it all just comes back full circle. Maybe I’ll even get a thank you text.”

Q: Joe Gibbs says you can win from your fourth stall; do you agree?

Hamlin: “Certainly. Sure you can. I think it just depends on the situation. If there’s a late-race caution, certainly it’ll hurt, but this race typically has gone green for a really long time. If that’s the case, it’s not as big of a factor, but if we have some cautions and things at the end, it definitely can play a role.”

Q: Have you heard from sponsor FedEx about the move?

Hamlin: “Yeah, I talked to them a little bit, and Joe talked to them. They actually said we would want the same in return if the roles were reversed. It’s good that they’re kind of understanding in that sense.”

Q: Can this be classified as manipulating the race?

Hamlin: “I don’t know. Tough to say. I was third last year on the last restart, I cleared Kyle, he was fourth, and I just let him go, so that’s manipulating, too. You could bring that up all the time. Everybody who’s not in it has manipulated for a teammate in some way, shape or form. Manipulating can go … I mean what do we do at Martinsville on restarts? That’s full manipulation. So that’s a big wide, broad term that this could definitely fall in, but definitely on the smaller side.”

Q: Is there any way to police it?

Hamlin: “There’s just no way. Short of just saying NASCAR says we agree No. 1 is the best pit stall and whoever gets the pole has to keep it. Short of that, the 4 car gave us the No. 1 stall at Richmond because it wasn’t the best stall. We qualified second, he chose not to take No. 1. The problem is if it moves away from this track, you could argue which stall is the best, but I think here everyone would agree No. 1 is the best.”

Q: How much of an indicator is this that the race is only important to the four championship contenders?

Hamlin: “Probably. In the grand scheme of things. Even if you come out here and win the race, and I’ve won the race here a few times, and it’s played no role in winning a championship, you’re celebrating in victory lane, and nobody really cares. It’s just about those guys, but they earned that right to be on the stage this weekend. We didn’t.”

Q: Has perspective evolved on how to race the contenders for the 35 guys who won’t race for the title, especially since Kyle Larson said he laid back last year in third instead of challenging the top two championship contenders?

Hamlin: “I think some people do things differently than others. I think Kyle Larson is the kind of guy who would pull the move he did last year to be like I could maybe go up, and I don’t think it was a foregone conclusion he was going to pass those guys. He kind of stalled out when he got there. He’s the guy that you’ve got to respect the people who are up there.

“I think that if it is not one of my teammates that are in that same position in the top two, and I’m third running them down, I’m going to try to pass them both. No matter if it’s a Toyota teammate, I have to think about it. Can I pass them in time? It’s the thing about this sport, you’re playing for the championship, but yet everyone is playing, too. It’s the same thing that sucks about it last week and the week before. We all have to play on the same field. And we’re all out there trying to achieve our own goals, and sometimes that crosses the path.”

Jamie McMurray ready for the end of his full-time NASCAR career

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jamie McMurray hasn’t decided if he will race the 2019 Daytona 500 for Chip Ganassi Racing, but he has made peace with his NASCAR career essentially being over.

And because of the advice of his peers and his own experience with pursuing a ride, he’s ready for it.

“I’m really fortunate that I wasn’t the first of all my friends, so I’ve talked to (Greg) Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Casey Mears last week,” the No. 1 Chevrolet driver said Friday after practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I’ve talked to a lot of drivers that have recently went through it, and everyone’s story is exactly the same. And so if I feel the way that they do, I’m looking forward to three to four races into next year.”

McMurray said he will make a decision “soon” on Ganassi’s offers to drive in a third car for the team at Speedweeks 2019 and take on a management role with the organization (similar to that of Dario Franchitti with Ganassi’s IndyCar team), but there’s “just a lot of other things that I’m going through trying to figure out that I can’t say, but I hope I can soon.” He said he is considering other racing opportunities (though virtually ruled out sports cars).

But if he races at Daytona International Speedway, that likely will be it in NASCAR’s premier series for McMurray, who is wrapping up his 16th full season (and his second stint at Ganassi, where he has driven Cup from 2002-05 and ’10-18).

“I had opportunities to drive, they just weren’t opportunities I wanted,” he said. “I was fighting for one of the (open) rides. There was a point that honestly I looked at it, and I was like, ‘I don’t know that I want them to call me back.’

“I was fighting because I thought it was the right thing to do, but I wanted to drive (at Ganassi). I like this team, and I have so much history, I didn’t want to bounce somewhere else for a year and be unhappy.”

McMurray, 42, said his decision was easier after watching Kenseth return in a part-time role with Roush Fenway Racing this year after losing his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth has said Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway likely will be his last race because he didn’t like readjusting to the NASCAR grind and missing time with his four young daughters.

McMurray, a father of two with his wife, Christy, also is looking forward to more family time.

“Matt’s my best friend, my closest racing buddy, and so I spent a lot of time talking to Matt about his feelings toward everything and what he’s thinking,” McMurray said. “Because everyone says eventually you do miss the competition side of it, but the rest of (the season) is super tiring, and it’s just been so long.

“That’s made my transition easier because every single one of those people that have transitioned out (of NASCAR) have called and told me the same story, and it’s all ended in a good way.”

The Joplin, Missouri, native has stayed mum on his future because he wanted to avoid an awkward farewell, but he will be commemorating the 582nd start of a Cup career that includes seven victories (including the 2010 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400). Besides his wife, children, mother and father, he also is flying in his sister, Trisha, who will be attending one of her brother’s Cup races for the first time.

McMurray said he probably will reveal his future plans on social media.

“I would have loved to tell everybody what I think I’m going to do next year, but I just don’t have it finalized yet, so I’m just going to kind of wait,” he said.